Mary E Kramer

How Did We Get So Rude? - June 1, 2013

Mary E Kramer
June 01, 2013— Ames, Iowa
League of Women Voters of Iowa State Convention
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Thanks for inviting me...important topic - and there is opportunity for this group to make a difference as they have in so many other things.

Thank you for your presence here today. It indicates you are interested in the future of our state and our country and are willing to give time and energy to make it better.

Goals for today?

Provide information on a topic that threatens our form of government - perhaps more than any time in our memory. Provide tools and encouragement to league members to become leaders in changing the status quo. Many things have changed in our country. Isn’t that a profound understatement? The change we are talking about today involves the degeneration in the quality of the public discourse in America. We used to be able to debate with our adversaries without resorting to the demonization of one another. Debates on important issues were challenging–fun even.

Yes, Americans who demonize those they disagree with have long been among us.

Demonization used to be a last resort. Now we seem to begin with it. Demonization has NOT always been widely accepted as a routine feature of all facets American life. It’s not just political campaigns anymore - think entertainment, news, social media.....)

My definition of demonization? Viewing those we disagree with as the embodiment of evil. This results in a profound loss of perspective on the humanity of our opponents. They stop being human beings like us, who happen to disagree on some issues, and instead become some kind of insidious demonic force let loose in the world.

When I first ran for office in 1990, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives could still disagree without becoming mortal enemies. We could still enjoy “colleagueship.”

The conservative/moderate divide in the Republican Party has been present since Dwight Eisenhower. But today, people who describe themselves as moderate Republicans are rare. The liberal/moderate divide in the Democrat Party has been present since Franklin Roosevelt. But today, self-described moderate Democrats are rare.

As a matter of fact, I now reject the term “moderate” since some people believe it denotes persons who hold no firm beliefs, have no values and are willing to accept any compromise to avoid conflict and get elected. Even the term moderate has been “demonized.”

Complaints about the lack of “good” candidates and cynical wishes for a “none of the above” on the ballot are common. Our ballot choices are products of our lack of participation.

Only 1 in 8 Americans vote in primaries. This means that about 1/6 of registered voters, perhaps 2% of all Americans, control each party. These voters form what is referred to as the “base.” The “base” of both parties is made up of the MOST conservative Republicans and the MOST liberal Democrats.

Among these two groups, the pseudo moral/social issues make differences intolerable. The battle lines are drawn and they delineate the MORAL vs. the IMMORAL, the INTELLIGENT vs. the STUPID, the PATRIOT vs. the FANATIC.

Historically, the glue of both government institutions and non-government organizations, has been collegiality. By definition, collegiality is the willingness to talk, to accept differences, to share friendship, to work toward shared and lofty goals.

Today? Members of legislative bodies avoid contact with one another outside the formal “debates.”


How could they? The goal of most campaigns is to devalue the life experience and destroy the integrity of the opponent.

The strength of our democracy has traditionally been our capacity to meet together, to share information about a broad range of issues and viewpoints, and to seek common ground so we can move toward our shared vision of the desired future. Today, there is no shared vision of the desired future, and no leaders seem to be interested in helping us create that common vision of the desired future.

Food for thought:

Because someone passionately “believes in” something, does that belief allow them to mandate their views on everyone else? In America today, has a tolerance of differing viewpoints somehow become unacceptable - immoral? Is the morality debate a euphemism - all about power? The debate about “values” - shared or not, largely reflects the fear of losing power, or the need to gain power - the power of the majority, the power to control the issues, the power to maintain one’s sense of belonging with those folks that share our opinions, i.e. “think like we do.”

Many factors have contributed to the slide from civility to demonization. Here are three I believe are having the biggest impact.

Bill Bishop, a veteran journalist from Austin, Texas, has written about the first phenomenon in his book “The Big Sort – Why the Clustering of Like Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” His hypothesis is: Individual Americans, with modern freedom of economic mobility, both real and virtual, are able to choose with whom they will associate. We choose our neighborhoods, our churches, our politics, even our news sources according to what we believe. Our world view. He refers to this transformation as the Big Sort. The book is a tough read, filled with data and seemingly exhaustive research – but I recommend it. It describes what has happened – why we can no longer get along politically and seem forever estranged from compromise or consensus.

  • As a result of the big sort, congressional redistricting (both state and federal) has given us more politicians from overwhelmingly BLUE or RED districts. Safe districts so to speak. These folks then feel obligated to represent the extreme views of their constituents to assure their re election. In the past, a good representative ran with a party, but represented all constituents. Every issue is a political prism…it is not about what’s best for the district, or the state or the country, it is about being reelected and/or maintaining the majority status. Constituents become unhappy with their elected representative who tries to work across party lines to find solutions or even common ground. They fear the primary.

  • The voracious 24 hour news cycle thrives on conflict and spectacle. Incendiary rhetoric sells advertising and carries the day. Even letters to the editor are sometimes rejected as “not controversial enough.” And we, the listeners and watchers, choose to listen to and read those we agree with. Thus our beliefs are reinforced and we become even more entrenched in our positions. The shrill shouting voices of talk radio share a clear bias and make no bones about it. Even more insidious however are the biased writers and broadcasters who pretend to have an objective point of view. I would ask you to remember the first editorial “cut” is the decision about what stories should be presented.

  • Some people believe the 1973 Roe V. Wade decision and the ensuing religious mobilization into political combat has contributed mightily to our separation. The response and counter response that has characterized Roe, has helped to create the habit of demonization in American public life. But if abortion was the seed, the fruit has blossomed with many other issues – everything from gay rights to immigration to energy policy to health care reform. My Irish Grandmother used to tell us “When there is no solution, seek it lovingly.” Apparently Socrates said something similar – perhaps my Irish Grandmother was even wiser than I thought.

These three factors have surely upped the “demon” factor. Demonization involves a shift from debating issues to attacking persons. It has a deathly logic – if we can just destroy the career or the character of a person who is getting it all wrong, all would be well or at least better.

For these reasons, and I’m sure we could name many others, – national and local debates are no longer about the competition for the “big center.” They are for very small wedges of the “base.” There seems to be little interest in compromise, only interest in assuring MY point of view is dominant. I (or my side) must be the winner.

When I first entered politics, I naively believed that if people really understood my positions, they would see the merits and agree with me. After some years of attempting to “educate” people to my positions, I finally have to admit that even when people understand my positions perfectly, they often do not agree with me and likely are never going to agree with me.

Should we care? YES! Right now, today, we are so polarized we can’t get anything done. Thank goodness we saw the willingness to compromise at the end of the Iowa legislative session this year. An encouraging situation. Yet nationally there seems to be no movement, no leadership that seeks compromise or common ground. Instead from all quarters, there is only the effort to convince people they should come over to MY side (whichever side that is).

Your position or my position on any given issue is important. I admire and respect passion and integrity in beliefs and values. But what happens when we allow our belief to overcome our capability, even our willingness to mix with persons of a differing point of view. Points of view have become the race or gender battles of yesterday.

How can we seek common ground? How will we move forward for the common good?

My Dad had a saying “To a man whose only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” To persons with a single issue driving their passion – this analogy fits. On the abortion issue – hammers seem to be in the hands of believers and distributed equally and on both sides of the issue.

People of every faith share humanity’s common pool of frailties and strengths. Every human being is worthy of being treated with basic human decency and respect. Every human being is capable of error and that makes each one of us vulnerable.

Solzhenitsyn said “The line separating good and evil passes…right through every human heart.” A society is in trouble when people forget this and everyone begins to think “we” are the good and “they” are the bad.

With only a brief review of our history and a cursory look around the world today, it becomes abundantly clear that what we have created here in America - our democratic way of life - is a HUGE ACHIEVEMENT in human civilization.

Because of that achievement, Americans have a great appetite for liberty, a great hunger for principled leaders and a great hunger for civility in discussion. Yet we are victims of continual, often meaningless or divisive communication. There is little listening, only individuals and institutions waiting their turn to speak.

Citizen unhappiness becomes apparent, even nasty, when the people believe no one is listening to their concerns….this is especially true when their leaders or their elected officials forget who they represent.

I once worked for a very wise leader who said “The danger of being good is we stop trying to get better.” We must not stop trying to get better….

What to do?


Ask clarifying questions, try to understand why the person holds that opinion.

Do not offer judgment, advice or your opinion until you are sure you are clear.

Acknowledge the validity of the others position. A few examples:

Elections - it is no good to say “there is no voter fraud.” In a country our size with systems our size there is bound to be. So do not diminish your own credibility by refusing to admit fraud exists.

Gun Control - People who want stronger regulation have a hard time accepting a genuine respect for the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

Immigration - Beware of loaded words - like alien and amnesty. Instead, focus on the issues of our weak enforcement of our immigration law over many years - the somewhat convoluted process for issuing visas for legal entry....remember, we are still the most hospitable country in the world.

Then ask - What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

Working together to agree on the problem statement often introduces common ground.

After several years of living overseas, I returned home with a renewed and deeper appreciation of my Iowa roots and the willingness of my fellow Iowans to participate in “good” causes. An example of this is our participation in the caucus process, which demonstrates our desire to understand issues, to hold candidates to certain standards, and to become more personally involved.

I believe the most important cause right now is an effort to renew citizen engagement…without such an effort, we will not see improvement in the status quo. In fact it is highly likely we will see continued decline in our ability to solve important issues.

Some years ago I came across these words. I believed them then and find them inspiring today.

  • Iowa is the place where the dream still lives.

  • Iowa is the America we grew up believing in. It is liberty bought by hard work and integrity.

  • It is the belief that the future will be even better than today if WE will work to make it that way.

  • YES, Iowa is the place where the dream still lives.

So – Can we talk? More important, can we listen?